A.08: How to Hold a Slippery Fish: Methodological Challenges and Solutions for Studying Student Dispositions

Reviewed by Megan Schoettler, Miami University of Ohio (schoetmp@miamioh.edu)

Chair: Gwen Gorzelsky, Colorado State University
Speakers: Dana Lynn Driscoll, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Amy Metcalf Latawiec, Wayne State University
Jennifer Wells, New College of Florida

In their 2012 article, Dana Lynn Driscoll and Jennifer Wells argued that, “individual dispositions, such as motivation, value, and self-efficacy, need to occupy a more central focus in writing transfer research.” Since then, Driscoll, Wells, Metcalf, and Gorzelsky have continued important work conceptualizing and testing how we study dispositions. In this presentation, they summarized their progress and provided implications for disposition researchers.

Dana Driscoll introduced The Writing Transfer Project, a two-year study with 48 classroom sections across multiple institutions. The research team used strong theoretical models, set up coding schemes, and in Driscoll’s words, “utterly failed to study dispositions.” During their summer research work, coders were trained to find generative and disruptive dispositions using Peter Smagorinksy and Joel Taxel’s (2005) collaborative coding strategy. However, when their work was reviewed by Driscoll, Wells, Metcalf, and Gorzelsky, many of the codes were over 40% inaccurate, identified inaccurately as generative or disruptive. Codes were also missed—for example, self-efficacy was missed 60.7% of the time.

Driscoll stated that in this case, “weeping and gnashing of teeth…leads to opportunity.” After hundreds of hours invested in this project, the researchers have a much better idea of what has to be done to study dispositions. Driscoll provided several insights for disposition researchers: where we derive our definitions is a critical part of the research process, we need a more nuanced definition of self-efficacy, we should stick to one or two dispositions when studying them, and we should consider the importance of student identities when studying dispositions.

As a part of her research, Amy Metcalf studies student self-efficacy in basic writing courses. Specifically, she teaches a self-regulated learning environment and wants to see if this classroom design cultivates efficacious beliefs about writing. In her courses, students choose a personal learning objective (PLO), which they develop and track across the semester. In scaffolded reflective writing, Metcalf found efficacious writing, for example: “I believe that the more we continue to write this paper, the stronger we will be.” In this study, Metcalf did not come up with a definition of self-efficacy that can be replicated, but we can work towards this as a field. Metcalf also warns that while self-efficacy research is important with basic writers, these students may be hard to recruit for interviews.

Jennifer Wells teaches writing about writing classes in which students specifically read about dispositions and knowledge transfer. One question asked of her by her colleague was, “How do we even know these classes are working?” In other words, how do we know that this teaching content and environment is supporting developing writers and encouraging transfer? To answer this question, Wells researched collaboratively with two undergraduate peer writing tutors. Benefits of working with the tutors were that they have member status with research participants, they are familiar with the coursework and readings that peers have read, and being a co-researcher with a faculty member aids with student retention. So far, the student researchers have coded for transfer and self-regulation in their interviews, and their practice is promising. Their coding work is 70% in agreement, in contrast to 54% from the broader Writing Transfer Project. Also, only 22% of codes were missed, contrasted with 68% from the Writing Transfer Project. Wells is not sure what exactly led to the success, but she sees the role of undergraduate researchers in disposition research as promising. The work of these students does take time, however, as her student researchers would get tired after 1.5 hours of coding. Wells wants composition researchers to consider the question: “What benefit to your project could be achieved by including undergraduates in your research?”

In 2017, we can look forward to reading more about Driscoll, Wells, Metcalf, and Gorzelsky’s research in Composition Forum.


As scholars in our field continue to do the important work of disposition research, it will be important to have ongoing conversations about which definitions of student dispositions we are using to build our studies and how we decide to code for dispositions. These researchers exemplify how we must engage critically with what each disposition means within our field, instead of cleanly taking theories and concepts from other fields (such as Albert Bandura’s work on self-efficacy) and applying them straight to the composition classroom. Like writers adapting skills and knowledge between classes, we must recontextualize and recognize the limitations and affordances of the disposition methodologies we use.


Driscoll, Dana Lynn, & Wells, Jennifer. (2012). Beyond knowledge and skills: writing transfer and the role of student dispositions. Composition Forum, 26, Retrieved from http://compositionforum.com/issue/26/beyond-knowledge-skills.php

Smagorinsky, Peter, & Taxel, Joel. (2005). The discourse of character education: Culture wars in the classroom. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Created by RebekaB. Last Modification: Tuesday January 3, 2017 22:40:23 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.